Scientists have identified a gene that may play a protective role in preventing heart disease.
The gene, called MeXis, acts within key cells inside clogged arteries to help remove excess cholesterol from blood vessels, said researchers at University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) in the US.
Published in the journal Nature Medicine, the study in mice found that MeXis controls the expression of a protein that pumps cholesterol out of cells in the artery wall.
MeXis is an example of a "selfish" gene, one that is presumed to have no function because it does not make a protein product, researchers said.
However, recent studies have suggested that these so-called "unhelpful" genes can actually perform important biological functions without making proteins and instead producing a special class of molecules called long non-coding RNAs, or lncRNAs.
"What this study tells us is that lncRNAs are important for the inner workings of cells involved in the development of heart disease," said Peter Tontonoz, professor at UCLA.
"Considering many genes like MeXis have completely unknown functions, our study suggests that further exploring how other long non-coding RNAs act will lead to exciting insights into both normal physiology and disease," said Tontonoz.
The researchers found that mice lacking MeXis had almost twice as many blockages in their blood vessels compared to mice with normal MeXis levels.
In addition, boosting MeXis levels made cells more effective at removing excess cholesterol.
Researchers will further explore how MeXis affects the function of cells in the artery wall and will test various approaches to altering MeXis activity. They are interested in finding out if MeXis could be targeted for therapy of cardiovascular disease.
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